A guide to some of the best films shown at TIFF 2023
Hear more from tt stern-enzi on the Toronto International Film Festival by tuning into this episode of Cincinnati Edition.
Marking what should have been 15 years of attending the Toronto International Film Festival — I sadly missed a couple of years due to COVID — the 2023 edition arrives under similarly fraught circumstances, thanks to the dual strikes of the WGA and SAG/AFTRA. TIFF, as one of the premier festivals in the world, typically enjoys a catbird seat when it comes to screening award-caliber films, creating buzz for those films from the legion of international members of the press covering the event, and attracting audiences eager to experience the best the world has to offer.
But what is it like when a festival like TIFF has to let its film slate speak for itself? What happens when the stars are unable to grace the stages and red carpets in support of their work created over the last year or so? Is the festival selling stars or the films?
I had a brief conversation with an actor who was on hand to promote one of the two films they had in this year's slate — the one, of course, that was not under the aegis of the studio/streaming industry system — and while this performer will likely be up for awards consideration, their take on the situation focused on turning attention to the host of folks in positions behind the scenes that are key in the production and presentation. A certainly worthy angle, but what about performers finding themselves in these discussions for the first time, who have waited years (or more) for their chance to grab the spotlight?
It is about the work, but I believe more than ever, this year requires more from journalists. We have to raise the stakes of our coverage. Let me be your guide with my 10 favorite films from this year's festival — with an additional title that shook and stirred a segment of the critical audience. It's time to get TIFF-ing!
(Trailers included when available.)
Origin (directed by Ava DuVernay)
DuVernay has gifted audiences with a wide range of narrative features (from the indie drama of Middle of Nowhere to the Civil Rights epic Selma) to documentaries on the small screen (When They See Us and Colin in Black & White) and big (13th), but Origin provides her with a canvas that allows her to bring all of her skills to bear. On the surface, Origin is an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson's best-selling examination of the global caste system (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent), which she believes is the fundamental root behind our complex race relations in the United States. Yet, DuVernay fashions a narrative that introduces international and historic threads (weaving in governmental policies in Nazi Germany, discussions of the caste dynamic in India and what we would describe as typical examples of race/racism here in the states) with emotional links to the very personal losses Wilkerson faces in her own life as she's working on the book. And quite possibly the truest thing onscreen is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor who, as Wilkerson, is the human heart and soul compelling us to face the facts.
Anatomy of a Fall (directed by Justine Triet)
The 2023 Palme d’Or winner from the Cannes Film Festival arrived with a full head of steam prior to its Press & Industry presentation on Opening Day. Triet, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Harari, found the perfect onscreen partner in Sandra Hüller, the German lead actress from Toni Erdmann in 2016. Hüller has a second attention-grabbing role in Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, but her Anatomy turn zeroes in on a writer whose husband (Samuel Theis) is found dead outside their remote chalet by their partially blind young son (Milo Machado Graner). This legal whodunit walks a delicate balance through its deft use of flashbacks and slightly skewed perspectives in presenting the case without tipping its hand. This approach guarantees that audiences will return for multiple viewings as they actively engage in figuring out the truth for themselves.
Ezra (directed by Tony Goldwyn)
Actor and director Goldwyn, likely best known as the president in the television series Scandal, teams up with his good friend Tony Spiridakis to share the story of a father, played by Bobby Cannavale, struggling for a big break as a stand-up comic raising a child with autism (newcomer William Fitzgerald) alongside his ex-wife (Cannavale's real-life wife Rose Byrne) and his somewhat distant father (Robert De Niro). A richly detailed dramedy with strong performances, Ezra surprises with how it renders what could have been a syrupy feel-good story with depth and authenticity. Goldwyn obviously leans on his experience as an actor to elicit nuanced and natural performances from his entire cast. This is a film that we should be talking about beyond awards season.
Les Indésirables (directed by Ladj Ly)
The Malian-French Ly follows up his stirring debut film Les Misérables (a 2019 Palme d’Or nominee) with Les Indésirables, a spiritual continuation of French issues with immigration and social justice that focuses on the clash between a local housing activist (Anta Diaw) and an interim mayor (Alexis Manenti). While lacking the explosive propulsive vibe of Misérables, which operated in the crime thriller genre, Indésirables traffics in the power of political uprisings to galvanize a desperate community. Ly has offered the opinion that his role as a filmmaker is to present the harsh realities of the society he lives in without being burdened with providing solutions. And although I wholeheartedly agree with him, there will come a time when Ly's vision might draw him into the political arena and his voice would, no doubt, be welcome and vital.
Stamped from the Beginning (directed by Roger Ross Williams)
Williams, the Academy Award-winning director of Music by Prudence for Best Documentary Short Subject — marking him as the first African American director to win an Academy Award — has had a busy 2023: as executive producer and director on The 1619 Project as well as producing/directing Love to Love You, Donna Summer, along with directing a new feature film, Cassandro. And we must add Stamped from the Beginning to the mix, which distills Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, into a tightly honed documentary treatise. Williams, during his introduction of the film at the festival, reminded audiences that the project would be deemed unteachable in some Southern states, which is exactly why it and Kendi's book should be required historical texts for all Americans.
We Grown Now (directed by Minhal Baig)
When we speak of intersectionality, an often-unspoken consideration is that of trust. We, as marginalized folks operating in creative spheres, need to trust others who may see something of themselves in our common experiences, especially if they approach us with a sincere willingness to listen to and engage with our perspectives. Baig, a Palestinian American filmmaker (HALA), returned to Chicago, specifically the early 1990s Cabrini-Green housing complex, where young best friends Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) navigate the treacherous environs around the time of the police shooting of another young resident. We Grown Now is a coming-of-age story that rarely gets seen on the big screen, but also a still quite timely exploration of systemic housing and economic realities impacting communities in the U.S. and beyond. If I were to look at this from my programming perspective, I could easily envision a double feature with Les Indésirables that would open up a necessary global discussion.
Uproar (directed by Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch)
A second coming-of-age narrative lands squarely in my top 10 and adds another cultural experience to the diversity-based intersectional landscape. Bennett and Middleditch set their narrative feature in early 1980s New Zealand, where Josh (Julian Dennison) a 17-year old Maori being raised by his white English mother (Minnie Driver), gets caught up in an identity-awakening moment as his community finds itself in solidarity with Black South Africans fighting apartheid when the South African rugby team arrives on a tour. The film starts off as a lighthearted lark, but slow burns its way into a riveting dramedy that continues my string of interconnected films with powerful social justice themes.
Sing Sing (directed by Greg Kwedar)
Colman Domingo and Paul Raci lead a cast of formerly incarcerated performers telling the story of a prison theater group that stages amateur productions of Shakespeare and original works as a means of rehabilitation. Domingo shines as the protagonist, a dedicated figure in the prison community with deep artistic passion and the drive to work just as diligently on his parole hearing, while connecting with and inspiring a fellow inmate, Clarence Maclin, playing a version of himself. The film challenges us to see the humanity in others by not limiting or defining them based on the worst mistake they may have made in their lives.
The Burial (directed by Maggie Betts)
Sometimes festival audiences need a momentary respite from the serious thematic fare that tends to dominate a festival like TIFF (see several of the installments on this list), so here's to the warm welcome retreat of The Burial from Betts. I caught her feature debut Novitiate at TIFF's 2017 event, so I knew she was a director of vision, but I wasn't quite ready for the crowd-pleasing appeal she infused here. The story, inspired by true events, features a flashy lawyer (Jamie Foxx) who takes the case of a funeral home owner (Tommy Lee Jones) in the deep South facing off against a corporate juggernaut in the industry seeking to pilfer this family business for pennies on the dollar. In lesser hands, this would have been a broad comedic romp, but Betts mines the material, along with a stellar cast that also includes a shrewd turn from Jurnee Smollett as opposing lead counsel, and exposes a heaping helping of social rot, while giving audiences a real rooting interest.
Flora and Son (directed by John Carney)
Surprises make festivals so much more meaningful, and with Flora and Son, Carney (known for crafting musical dramas like Once and Begin Again) seemingly stays in this lane with his latest, the story of a single mother (Eve Hewson) flailing as she seeks to keep her teenage son (Orén Kinlan) on the straight and narrow. Eager to find a hobby for him, she pulls an old guitar out of a dumpster and discovers the instrument that might redeem both of them. Music leads the way, but Flora and Son excels thanks to its host of engaging relationships and characters like Joseph Gordon-Levitt's online guitar instructor who proves that the world is, indeed, a smaller and more connected space thanks to technology and the human drive to share stories and music.
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One more to carefully consider
American Fiction (directed by Cord Jefferson)
Jefferson, the writer and executive story editor on Master of None, The Good Place and Watchmen, enters the feature film realm with his adaptation of Percival Everett's award-winning novel Erasure. The novel and film trace the dilemma of Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a Black writer operating on the less-than-celebrated side of the writing game while also teaching at a West Coast college. Ellison rubs his students the wrong way by triggering them with outdated language in classic writing and chafes as newer writers make a bigger splash trafficking in racial stereotypes. During a trip back to the East Coast to visit family, Ellison decides to write a satirical novel that capitalizes on the same tropes only to find himself a bit of a literary darling for his efforts, as the joke backfires quite spectacularly. But the film's execution mirrors the same concerns and becomes a potentially uncomfortable sit for Black audiences as others laugh a bit too lustily at the proceedings. I found myself thinking about Dave Chappelle's comments about his Comedy Central show after he landed his blockbuster deal, where he worried that audiences were not understanding what they were laughing at in some of the jokes. The issue gets down to who is the audience for such fare.